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Retrospective #6: Juan Sebastian Verón – The would-be hero

Overrated. Flop. Failure.

These are words that many believe encapsulate the Manchester United career of the elegant yet frustrating Juan Sebastian Verón. Arriving at United in 2001 for a then British record £28.1 million pounds, the Argentine playmaker was consistently disappointing, the sea of mediocrity that was his United tenure only occasionally giving way to the moments of class and quality one might expect from one of such considerable reputation. For a player of such prodigious talent, it is quite a shame that within two seasons of his arrival he was being carted out to financially invigorated Chelsea where he once again failed to settle, thus offering vindication to his many jaded detractors.

The huge financial outlay was quite out of character for Ferguson at the time, especially considering that Verón was being added to a team that had just won the title three years in a row. Partnered with the £19million spent on a certain Ruud Van Nistelrooy, it seemed Manchester United would dominate for years to come. It wasn’t to be. The Reds failed to retain their title and were crowned champions just once more in four subsequent campaigns. It was the biggest transitional period since the arrival of Sir Alex, and while it would be erroneous to label Veron as a victim of this reality, it would have been interesting to see how the silky midfielder would have fared had he arrived at the end of this evolution as opposed to its inauguration.

The treble winners, Fergie’s second great United team, were the embodiment of a buccaneering 4-4-2 mentality. This was a strategy that had seen them dominate domestically yet, aside from ’99, disappoint in Europe. Whilst nothing can be taken away from the historic Bayern-slayers, it would be fair to say that this was never a team to dominate games on the continent. Their all out attack approach, too much for most Premier League teams, often appeared limited in the European game, where a methodical thoughtful approach was often employed by the most successful teams. In short, United needed to dictate games more to take control. Verón’s arrival was the first step in this transition. Unfortunately he had signed for a team that was not ready or able to accommodate him.

He appeared off the pace and exposed in a midfield partnership, being more accustomed to a three-man midfield at Lazio, where he had the likes of Diego Simeone and Matias Almeyda in front of him to slog it out, while he sat back in the quarterback role. No such luxuries were on offer in this United team. While the likes of Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard would adapt to a new system, this was the start of the millennium in the Premier League, and it would be some years before ‘European methodology’ was embraced. For now, Veron had the likes of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira to measure up to: fiery midfield generals who ran their legs up into their bodies, shunning a more methodical approach for one of restless ferocity. These were players who did everything and often made the thoughtful demeanour of Verón appear nonchalant at best, lacking quality at worst. This often resulted in the Argentine being shifted out to the wing where in truth, he fared no better.

That’s not to say the Old Trafford career of La Brujita (The Little Witch) was without its high points and he never received the widespread criticism from the club or its fans that he endured in other quarters. In fact his contribution to the team improved considerably in the first half of his second season for the club, particularly in Europe. However he struggled with injury and as the Reds romped to the title in 2003, it was perhaps then that Ferguson questioned Verón’s importance to this United side.

When Chelsea came in for the Argentine with a bid of £15 million pounds the following summer, Sir Alex and the club accepted, which tells its own story. The club had made a £13.1 million loss on the player, which meant he cost United a little over 200k per game in his two years at Old Trafford, not including wages and bonuses, a phenomenal amount of money given the market at the time.

Many felt disappointed with the departure of a player who they felt was just starting to come good. Far more were happy to be rid of him. It appeared they were vindicated as Verón became the forgotten man of the Chelsea ascension, making just a handful of appearances for the first team before being loaned out to Inter Milan for three years. He will forever be remembered as an expensive flop on British shores and his lack of work rate at least could not be blamed on tactics or circumstance, but it cannot be a coincidence that he flourished in Italy both before and after his Manchester United tenure, and is currently doing the business in the Argentine league at the ripe old age of forty.

I, along with many other fans may be somewhat affected by nostalgia, but when looking back at the United time of Juan Sebastian Verón, I see nothing but unfulfilled quality (“I’m not sure he [Verón] will have more of an influence on the team but he’s just a better player [than Eric Cantona],” Paul Scholes, 2001) and like many others will continue to gaze through my red tinted glasses to remember the good times. Yes, for every silky pass or thunderbolt freekick there was a frustrating moment of petulance or laziness but in Seba Verón we had a quality resource that in truth we never knew how utilize.

He could and should have been a great United player. Unfortunately for all parties it was circumstance, not a lack of quality that ultimately decided his United fate.

This was written by Kevin Levingston. Kevin is a contributor for the excellent Stretty News. You can follow him on Twitter.

Manchester United find the perfect balance between defence and attack

United 3-0 Tottenham: Analysis and Observations

It is still early days but the manner in which Manchester United conducted themselves in their first home game was most encouraging. And such a result against a team thought to be the ‘dark horses’ of the Premier League this season gives all the more reasons to be optimistic. Tottenham’s resilience was apparent in the first half where they mounted a good challenge, seeing more of the ball and creating chances but all their hard work was undone in the second where they collapsed meekly and let United take charge.

It was an authoritative performance from the hosts after the interval and, indeed, United found the perfect balance between defence and attack. This was all done despite the likes of Ferdinand, Vidic, Fletcher, Carrick, Berbatov and Hernandez either on the bench or absent through injury. Manchester United have always been blessed with great strength in-depth, able to sweep aside opposition regardless of who is and isn’t playing.

Defence copes well under pressure

A lot was made about Manchester United’s apparent inexperience at the back but as any observer of the clubs knows, ‘inexperience’ doesn’t exactly have to be a negative word. The two centre-halves, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones, were both strong contender for Man of the Match. Evans was disciplined and assured allowing Jones to be in his comfort zone and venture forward when needed. Both Chris Smalling and Patrice Evra were solid and provided another attacking outlet down the flanks.

<Figure 1> This was a fine performance by Evans. It was, to use the annoying football phrase, a ‘no-nonsense’ performance from the Northern Ireland international. The above diagram shows his defensive clearances – four of which were in dangerous positions in and around the box.

<Figure 2> There are many reasons to be excited about Phil Jones. If you take a look at the key below, you can just see how useful a player he is. He made plenty of interceptions and clearances; and had freedom to press into spaces – restricting Spurs to use long-range efforts in order to find a goal.

Spurs failure to exploit United’s so-called ‘weakness’

<Figure 3> A lot has been of David de Gea’s apparent weakness from long-range shots; indeed, he conceded more than any other player from efforts outside the box in last year’s La Liga but a quick look at the goals suggest that some were unstoppable and that it’d be unfair to call it a weakness of his. However, it was quite obvious that Spurs had tried to target him, with a majority of their shots coming from outside the box. It should be added that this was also partly the case because United’s back four had restricted Spurs.

Cleverley and Anderson give stability to midfield

For the third consecutive game, United’s new look central midfield pairing were excellent. At first, they struggled to impose themselves but soon got into the groove – it was Tom Cleverley with the vital cross for Danny Welbeck that finally broke the deadlock. With Anderson (who scored the second) alongside Cleverley, it gave stability to the midfield and the team. There is a perfect balance between the two.

<Figure 4> Anderson carried out his defensive duties well. It is vital for a midfield player to stay disciplined and prevent the opposition from creating, and so Anderson’s six interceptions were crucial. That sounds more impressive when you consider Tom Cleverley didn’t even make one – but what it tells you is that both have different roles despite playing in a similar position.

United utilise the wings so well

“You’re just a shit Barcelona,” observed the travelling Spurs fans of Manchester United whose chants, albeit witty, were ultimately flawed. It’s probably not worth dwelling on such a comment but United, as it were, are almost something of an ‘anti-Barca’ – however, that isn’t a criticism. There are many ways a team could play in order to be successful and, in this game, they displayed great verve down the flanks, with a tendency to spread play quickly and without as much focus on possession keeping. For instance, even at 2-0 up, it wasn’t a case of simply keeping the ball and building patiently – it was more attacking the full backs and finding the man in the box. Not to say Barcelona don’t necessarily do that but as so much has been made at the fact that United “don’t have a central midfield”, it is worth saying that different teams work in different ways and players are given roles according to how their team is set up. There is no ‘right way’ to play the game, for sure.

And not many teams concentrate so much on their wide players like United do – it’s worth mentioning that by the time they scored their third, they had already attempted over 30 crosses. Ashley Young, or “a shit Aaron Lennon” as a couple of intellectuals chose to describe him as, looked dangerous on the flanks and already he looks a shrewd acquisition. Nani is very similar; but now, he tends to drift into the centre a touch and link up play and so far, he’s done it with much success.

<Figure 5> The chalkboard above looks a touch concerning but it does suggest United’s reliance from the wide ball. They scored 18 headed goals last season – more than any other team – and that’s partly to do with their perseverance to find the man in the box. In reality, 6 successful crosses from 33 is not as bad as it sounds when you consider that two of those were assists.

Wayne Rooney can compliment anyone

When Wayne Rooney drops into that almost-trequartista position, his impact on the game is likely to be huge. He appears to have created a good understanding with Danny Welbeck, who came in and out of the game but was finally able to impose himself in the second half when he scored the first and created the second. Rooney was impressive again – he attempted the most passes in the final third (38, 13 more than second-best Nani) and was in the right position to nod in the third towards the end.

The Report Card. United players are graded as if they’re back at school; David De Gea C – Chris Smalling B, Phil Jones A, Jonny Evans A, Patrice Evra C – Nani C, Tom Cleverley B, Anderson B+, Ashley Young B – Wayne Rooney A, Danny Welbeck B

Retrospective #5: Cantona’s moment of ‘sheer madness’

I’ll never forget the night of January 25th, 1995.

For anyone looking at the emotionless match summary, it’d prove a difficult task to find what was so extraordinary and unforgettable about the Premier League match that took place that evening. On a cold night at Selhurst Park, London, Crystal Palace and Manchester United played out a dreary 1-1 draw (Southgate 80′, May 56′) in the 94/95 season which ended so disappointingly for the Reds. On paper, it seemed like a routine fixture – United were trying to catch the big-spending Blackburn Rovers at the sharp end of the table, whilst Palace were fighting against relegation, a battle they eventually conceded. An away win was predicted, so the stalemate led to two vital points being dropped and ground lost on the Lancastrian side who were crowned champions four months later. In the days to come, however, that’s not all United lost.

What more can be said about Eric Cantona? He was “an absolute dream footballer” according to Sir Alex, and you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger United cult hero than the mercurial, enigmatic Frenchman. But for all of his qualities, King Eric had a weakness, and one that had reared its ugly head too often for many people’s liking. As referee Alan Wilkie brandished the red card in his direction that night, Cantona sauntered off the pitch, knowing his temper (or lack of it) had let him down for the fifth time in a United shirt. What happened next, however, would go down in football infamy forever.

Cantona was being escorted to the tunnel by then United kitman Norman Davies. As he recollected: “A steward insisted we move over to the touchline. At Selhurst Park, that puts you close to the fans. The abuse Eric was getting was nasty”. One of those aforementioned fans happened to be Matthew Simmons, a young man who had felt the need to run down 11 steps of the stand in order to give Cantona his two pennies worth. What did he say? It’s never been proved, but Simmons protested his innocence, claiming “It’s an early shower for you, Cantona!” were the only words that spilled out of his mouth that evening. The Frenchman clearly heard differently, however. Seconds later, Simmons was left reeling after Cantona had caught him on the chest, studs and all, with a two-footed martial arts kick. It was a chaotic, tumultuous and dramatic scene, but one which was so quintessentially Cantona – the perfect representation of a bloody minded, brooding and temperamental man who refused to do things by halves.

United lost Cantona to an eight month ban and went on to lose the title to Blackburn and the FA Cup Final to Everton. Any other squad member would have been castigated for the incident and blamed for the frustrating end to the season, but such was Cantona’s allure at Old Trafford that attitude was unthinkable. In effect, the relationship between Eric and the United crowd after Selhurst Park was an example of the ‘siege mentality’ mindset that Sir Alex Ferguson has drilled into his side time and again. As the media went into a frenzy – notably led by ‘The Sun’ who ran a 13-page article entitled ‘The Shame of Cantona’ – United fans rallied round and defended their talisman, despite the enormous impact his loss had caused the team. Unfortunately, a trophy-less season for a club as big as United meant that somebody had to be blamed. Five goals in one game and twelve goals in seventeen games total wasn’t enough to stop critics making Andy Cole their scapegoat for the stuttering end to the campaign.

After eight long months, a spell of community service and a quote about seagulls, Cantona came back to a changed Old Trafford landscape from the one he had left. Three experienced senior squad members – Ince, Hughes, Kanchelskis – had controversially departed the club, leading Sir Alex to place emphasis upon the burgeoning young talent which was breaking into the squad. On October 1st, 1995, United played arch-rivals Liverpool with a squad that included the Neville brothers, Butt, Scholes and Beckham, but few amongst the United faithful were focusing on them, or on the opposition. The King had returned. Long live The King.

This was written by Patrick Campbell. Newspaper clippings via TriciaRKG.

Ashley Young’s set-piece prowess can lead United to another title

Ashley Young Manchester United

With statistics from last season suggesting the extent of Manchester United’s aerial threat – scoring more headers than any other team – it’s a shame they haven’t moved for potential Barcelona-conqueror and Stoke City hurler Rory Delap in the summer window. But they’ve got the next best thing – a man who also compliments those in his team with a good head. It is Ashley Young (who, at £16million, appears a bargain in the inflated transfer market) who can give United fans more reasons to smile in the coming season.

By signing him so early in the summer, it allowed him to have an uninterrupted, successful pre-season where he obviously wasted no time settling in. On Sunday, with United trailing 2-0 to Manchester City in the Community Shield, it was his beautifully executed cross which set the team on their way to stage a gutsy fightback. Chris Smalling was in the perfect position to score; and although some dozy man-marking partly contributed to the goal, it was a fine delivery nonetheless. Young’s crossing ability is one of his greatest assets – and that bodes well for a team who scored 18 headed goals in the 2010/11 campaign.

By Young’s standards, last season was disappointing – but his record at Aston Villa is still largely impressive. In total, he played 157 times and averaged, roughly, an assist every two games. He was a particular creative threat from the dead ball, too. 31 of his 77 assists came from a set-piece, a welcoming statistic for those fans that will be quick to point out that Manchester United have been lacking an established free-kick or corner-kick taker for some time now.

A lot was also made last season from observers of United’s failures to score from corners. In April 2011, ManUtd24 looked at the declining rate of converted corner kicks in the modern game and came to the conclusion that it was a universal problem, decreasing for a variety of reasons. However, the concern shown from fans was understandable; again, many were citing that the team had no specialist takers. The addition of Young, who must be regarded as a dead ball specialist of the very highest order, will surely allay fears this time around. Indeed, it might just raise the success rate from this particular set-piece from the lowly 3.7% last season.

Indeed, he can considerably add to the goal tally with his delivery, like he had done in the earlier part of his career for Villa’s Dane skipper Martin Laursen and, more recently, Richard Dunne. While Nani was instrumental last season, creating 18 goals, he struggled somewhat from the set-piece. And what makes Young extra special is that isn’t just a creator – 17 of his 29 goals scored for the Villa Park outfit were from open play, meaning that the remaining twelve were scored from, you guessed it, the dead ball (7 free-kicks and 5 penalties).

United might opt for a flat midfield four this season – consisting of either Nani or Valencia on the right, the two central midfielders and then Ashley Young on the left. Indeed, Young has always thrived as an inverted winger, particularly enjoying cutting back onto his favoured right foot. It should be noted that he can also play as a second striker although it is difficult to imagine that’ll happen often as United are spoilt with attacking options – it is from the flanks where Young will flourish.

He has all the attributes needed to become a successful winger. As well as being able to cross and having pace in abundance, he can beat a man with ease. This was all evident in his finest season to date, the 2007/08 campaign, where he made 24 assists (nearly half of those from a set-piece, remarkably) and was eventually rewarded when PFA named him Young Player of the Year. Time has moved on, but Young has continued to influence events on the pitch. The general feeling is that, being with Manchester United and under the guidance of Sir Alex, this season could be his best yet.

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Readers are free to join ManUtd24’s Fantasy League on the Official Premier League website. Here is the code: 316253-91959. Good luck! (Although, with Carrick in central midfield and Norwich’s James Vaughan on the bench in my team, you probably wouldn’t stand a chance.)

Analysis and Observations: Authoritative Manchester United excel as a unit

United 3-2 Manchester City

Just a friendly, you say? Of course, but that hardly matters; it was the performance alone which was enough to fuel excitement ahead of the new season. At first, it was simply frustrating as Manchester United failed to convert. And even more frustrating when they conceded two cheap goals. Then breathtaking. One thing for sure, these 90 minutes – or United’s 85 minutes of dominance – was the embodiment of something good. Against a team supposedly strong enough to win the title, this game saw the Red Devils prevail in the mental battle. Quite vital when you consider that the 11/12 campaign is less than a week away.

United show power through the flanks. When you contemplate the inflated prices in the transfer market these days, £16million for Ashley Young looks a steal. Historically, United have always had a whole host of competent wingers and Young appears to be a fine addition. Here, he displayed great verve down the flanks and drifted in when he needed to, reducing the workload of both Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck at the same time. And, with United two goals down, he delivered a fantastic cross from a free-kick which allowed Chris Smalling to score setting United up for the rest of the game.

With Young making a good impression on the left, Nani enjoyed a good game on the opposite flank. He had made a good start but, at times, was kept quiet by City’s full backs. However, as so typical of the Portuguese winger, he excelled when United needed him most and led them on their fightback. A beautiful interchange in the box had allowed Nani to stroke home and equalise – setting the tone for the last half hour where United charged at City’s back four with much authority. Quite predictably, they found their third in stoppage time. Nani, the source of it as he dispossessed Vincent Kompany on the halfway line and then coolly rounded Joe Hart. And, after a terrific campaign last year, it was barely a shock.

Cleverley’s, er, genius, shines through. As the team has always prided itself in having great depth, Manchester United may need to sign another central midfielder in the summer window as they appear to be a little short on number. However, Tom Cleverley gave a timely reminder of his worth here at Wembley – evidently, his loan spell at Wigan Athetic has paid dividends. With United two goals down at the half time, they needed a change of personnel – not because they were playing badly, in fact they were easily the better team, but confidence had obviously been shot.

Who knows? Had Michael Carrick been fully fit coming into this game, he might have played on. As it happened, Cleverley replaced him and he instantly got into the game, stringing passes together and showing adventure whenever possible. He created a half-chance for Danny Welbeck immediately, before going on to assist the second. Here, Cleverley forged a good partnership with Anderson, much like he had a week earlier when United had beaten Barcelona 2-1 in a pre-season friendly.

David de Gea struggles to impose himself. Unfortunately, United’s new Spaniard keeper didn’t enjoy the sort of competitive debut his teammates such as Young or Phil Jones did, as he made two made avoidable errors towards the end of the first half. Firstly, for Joleon Lescott’s goal, he positioned himself poorly for a free kick and was made to pay as the defender easily nodded in. Then, minutes later, he was slow and sluggish as he failed to save an Edin Dzeko strike. He did try to atone for these mistakes in the second half when he pulled off a few decent saves, but his performance will still be under scrutiny. It’s important that he is given time, though.

United operate as a team. The reason why City struggled to assert themselves was because they focused too much on individuality and certainly did not pass the ball as well as United, who had a large share of possession even when they were behind. The equaliser epitomised just how good United are as a collective – showing great understanding together. It is also worth noting that when the final whistle was blown, United’s eleven players on the pitch had an average of 23. At one point, their oldest player was Ashley Young, quite amusingly – at the tender age of 26.

The Report Card. Yep, it’s back. United players are graded as if they’re back at school; David De Gea F – Chris Smalling B, Rio Ferdinand C, Nemanja Vidic C, Patrice Evra C – Nani A, Michael Carrick C, Anderson C, Ashley Young A – Wayne Rooney B, Danny Welbeck C – Subs: Phil Jones C, Jonny Evans C, Rafael C, Tom Cleverley B, Dimitar Berbatov (too cool for school)

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